I got COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship

John Craig Lee, a 72-year-old retired teacher from Richmond Hill, Ont., was travelling on the Diamond Princess when the cruise ship was quarantined in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, in early February, after a former passenger was diagnosed with COVID-19 in Hong Kong.

During the 14-day quarantine, Lee also tested positive for the virus, and he was transported to a hospital, along with 125 other passengers.

Here is his story, as told to CBC Radio.

My friend Larry and I were quite excited to go on this trip because we were going to a place I hadn’t been before, and he was going to see his sister and two nieces in Hong Kong along the way.

I flew out of Canada on January 17, a day earlier than I had planned because I wanted to avoid the snowstorm. A couple of days later, I boarded the cruise ship in Yokohama, and we set sail.

Lee doing some sightseeing in Japan. (Submitted by Craig Lee)

Our last port of call was Okinawa, an island in Japan. It took about an hour and a half for everyone to go through and get off the ship. They took our temperatures, our fingerprints and our pictures, which apparently is not uncommon.

That night we were told that there had been someone on the ship who had tested positive. Then they announced that the Ministry of Health in Japan was going to take over and the boat had been quarantined.

Lee on the deck of the Diamond Princess. (Submitted by Craig Lee)

As the days went on, we would hear from the news on TV — before we heard from the captain — what the new count was of passengers testing positive for the virus. The count was going up all the time.

We were getting really apprehensive of what was going on here.

When we returned to Yokohama, they started off testing the 80-year-olds. Anyone who tested positive was taken off the ship and to a hospital in Japan.

Then they started doing people over 70, and that’s where I fit in. Two days later, there was a knock at the stateroom door.

A doctor administers a COVID-19 test on Lee’s friend Larry. (Submitted by Craig Lee)

A Japanese doctor was there, and he said, “John Lee?”


“You tested positive. You’re going to be taken off the ship and put in a hospital.”

It was an awful feeling.

When I disembarked, it was 6:00 at night, and it was dark. 

I was taken to a bus. There were curtains on the windows, and all the curtains were closed. We had our masks on.

Finally at 7:30 the convoy left — and I say “convoy” because there were seven vehicles in it. There was a police car at the front with flashing lights, and one at the back. There were three buses, and there were two trailers with washrooms in them.

Lee and his fellow passengers boarding the bus to take them to the hospital (Submitted by Craig Lee)

After an hour and a half, we stopped for a washroom break. We had to use the washrooms in the trailers that we brought with us. We couldn’t use any public washrooms.

The ride to the hospital was supposed to be five hours, but it turned out to be a nine-hour bus trip.

Through this whole thing, I was asymptomatic. I had nothing wrong with me. 

In fact, in the hospital they would take your oxygen saturation point from your blood, and mine was always around 96, 97, 98, 99. Anything over 95 shows that there’s no problem with the lungs or the respiratory system.

But I still couldn’t leave the hospital until I produced two tests that were negative for COVID-19. Fortunately, I got my two negatives after 16 days — not the two weeks everyone talks about, but 16 days.

More than anything, you have to remain positive.

I got my two negatives and I got my discharge from the hospital. It was just joyful. 

After 50 days of being away from home, I finally made it back to Canada, to my family. It was just wonderful to walk through the door. It was so unreal — the whole trip was so unreal.

I couldn’t believe that, finally, I was home.

The cake that greeted Lee and Larry when they finally returned to Canada. (Submitted by Craig Lee)

My son had music playing, joyful music, to welcome me home. There was food and all the lights in the house were on and it was just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful experience.

What I realized from all this is that, more than anything, you have to remain positive.

You lose control, so you have to put trust in people who are looking after your goodness. And the captain and Princess Cruises, the government, even the Ministry of Health in Japan, they all looked after our goodness.

Healthcare workers at at Fujita University Hospital, where Lee stayed after testing positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Craig Lee)

We didn’t want to spread this disease. We went into the quarantine knowing that the greater community was going to be safe because we were isolated from them.

So you have to sort of look beyond who you are to what the greater need is in the community. This is what this isolation is all about right now. Stay home. That’s the way it’s going to be beaten.

If people don’t follow those rules, then this is going to last much longer, and we’ll pay much worse later on. 

This Happened to Me: COVID-19 is a video series from CBC Radio featuring the stories of Canadians who have battled the coronavirus.

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